- author, Stephanie Hegarty
- Roll, BBC World Service Reporter
2 minutes ago
It was four o’clock in the morning and Ahmed woke up scared. He, who is usually a deep sleeper, felt something was wrong.
He had been religiously checking his family’s WhatsApp group since the start of the war. From London, where he lives, it has been difficult to contact his father and brothers since Israel cut off electricity to the Gaza Strip. But two days earlier he had received a message from his sister Wallah.
Her house was damaged by a bomb. “The windows and doors inside the house were all broken,” Wallah texted the group. “But the important thing is that God saved us. We are all fine.”
“The house can be repaired,” Ahmed replied. “The important thing is that you are safe.”
Wallah and her four children moved to their father’s house in Deir al-Balah, in central Gaza.
That night, when Ahmed woke up, the family group was silent.
He called a friend in Gaza to find out what was happening and that’s when he discovered his family was dead.
Since the start of the war, Ahmed and the people from Gaza with whom he shares his London flat have lived in a kind of remote hell. Your cell phones are repositories of destruction and death. Every day they receive information that a neighbor, a friend or someone they studied with has been killed.
But he never believed that the war would directly affect his family.
His family home is in the center of Deir al-Balah, in an area that has never been targeted before.
“I thought: It’s a scary time for them, but they’re going to be OK,” he says. “That’s what I thought.”
In total, 21 people died when the family home was destroyed by an airstrike – their father, three of their sisters, two brothers and 15 children.
The list of the dead is so long that Ahmed becomes confused when listing the names and ages of each person killed in his family.
Of the children, his 13-year-old nephew Eslam was the oldest and the one Ahmed knew best. Ahmed was a teenager and living in the family home when Eslam was born. His mother took care of Eslam while his sister was at work, so Ahmed often helped feed and change Eslam when he was a baby.
Eslam said he wanted to be like his uncle. He was the best in his class, says Ahmed, and dedicated himself to studying English so he could also go to the United Kingdom.
Eslam was killed alongside his younger sisters – Dima, aged 10, Tala, aged nine, Nour, aged five, and Nasma, aged two, as well as his cousins Raghad (13 years old), Bakr (11 years old), the girls Eslam and Sarah, both nine years old, Mohamed and Basema, who were eight years old, and Abdullah and Tamim, who were six.
The last time Ahmed saw the children was via video call. He received a bonus at work and, as per family tradition, promised his nieces and nephews a gift.
“Everyone said they wanted to go to the beach, rent a chalet and eat and dance together and enjoy it,” he says. So, he rented a cottage and ordered dinner and snacks for them.
The kids called him from the beach that day, fighting over the phone to talk. Now, 15 of them are dead.
Of Ahmed’s nine siblings, only he and two sisters remain.
In the days following the attack, Ahmed posted a photograph online of each of the children, including three-year-old Omar. Then he received a call from his surviving sister to tell him that Omar is alive. “That was the happiest moment of my life,” he says.
Omar was in bed with his mother and father, Shimaa and Muhammed, when the bomb fell. Muhammed was killed, but Shimaa and Omar miraculously survived.
The only other person rescued alive was Ahmed’s 11-year-old niece Malak. She had third-degree burns on 50% of her body.
When I met Ahmed, he showed me a photo of Malak in the hospital, his body completely covered in bandages. Initially I thought it was a boy because her hair was short. It used to be long, Ahmed said, but it must have burned in the fire.
Malak’s father wasn’t home when the location was hit, and he’s alive. But his wife and two other children were killed. When Ahmed sent him a message asking how he was, he replied: “A body without a soul.”
At that moment, Gaza’s telephone signal was completely cut off as Israel intensified its attack and Ahmed was unable to contact anyone. When the signal resumed two days later, he learned that Malak had died.
With medical supplies dwindling to nothing, she had to be taken out of the intensive care unit when a more urgent case arrived. She was in a lot of pain. “I died a hundred times every day,” the father told Ahmed, as he watched the oldest and last of his three sons disappear.
Shortly before the communications blackout, Ahmed also discovered that his uncle’s house had been hit. He’s still not sure who was killed there.
We spoke to three people who each lost more than 20 family members in Gaza. One of them, Darwish Al-Manaama, lost 44 members of his family. They are dealing with grief on an incomprehensible scale.
Yara Sharif, an architect and academic in London, showed me photos of her aunt’s family home, which was destroyed by an Israeli attack a week after the war began.
“It was a very beautiful house,” says Yara, “a beautiful building with a large courtyard in the middle.” It was a family home where children build apartments for their own families on top of their parents’ apartment – a tradition that means multiple generations are being wiped out at once.
In this attack, 20 people died – Yara’s aunt and uncle, her two cousins and their 10 children, as well as six members of her extended family.
Some of the bodies were pulled from the rubble and appeared as numbers on the death list released by the Hamas-run Ministry of Health.
Yara sent us a screenshot of the list with a red check mark next to each name. On the right side of the list, their ages – Sama was 16, Omar and Fahmy were 14-year-old twins, Abdul was 13, Fatima 10, Obaida seven, cousins Aleman and Fatima were both five, Youssef was four and Sarah and Anas were three years.
Yara still has two cousins. They asked not to be identified, concerned about an unsubstantiated rumor that those who speak to the media are being targeted.
The sisters are in different parts of Gaza and are unable to communicate to hold a funeral. And anyway, Yara’s cousin sent her a message: “The bodies of Muhammad, mother and two children are still under the rubble.”
There is not enough fuel to operate the excavators in Gaza and those that are in operation are used primarily to rescue those who are alive.
On Friday (10/27), as I sat with Ahmed watching the news, the list of the dead scrolled across the screen. I asked him if his family was there. “Only 12 of them,” he said. The other nine have not yet been recovered.
Last week, his older sister, who was at home during the bombing, went to visit the ruins. But she told Ahmed she didn’t stay long because she couldn’t stand the smell of decomposing bodies.
Ahmed has not spoken to any of the sisters since Friday. His phones aren’t working and he doesn’t know what happened to them.
He can’t find words in English to describe what he’s been feeling since the bombing, as if his heart is no longer in his chest. Crying is useless, he says, because it doesn’t change anything.
And he’s restless: “I feel like I can’t sit still. I can’t sit still. I can’t sleep at night.”
“There’s nothing you can do to make that feeling go away.”
Among the dead was Ahmed’s younger brother, Mahmoud. He worked at the same NGO as Ahmed, We Are Not Numbers, which trains young Palestinians to tell their stories to the world.
Mahmoud had just been offered a scholarship to study for a master’s degree in Australia. A week after the war began, he told Ahmed that he did not want to go, that he was very disappointed with the way the West was reacting to the bombing of Gaza. He posted it on Twitter. “My heart can’t take this anymore. We are being massacred.”
A week later, he was killed in his father’s house.
Speaking of his father, Ahmed says he was the kindest man he ever met. He worked hard driving a taxi and working in construction to educate his family. He listened obsessively to the news and believed that the only solution to this conflict was a one-state solution – Jews and Palestinians living side by side in peace.
But when Ahmed thinks about his only surviving nephew, he wonders: What will Omar believe, after this war has taken so many of the people he loves?